Auckland widow's wish to give away leftover cancer medication illegal under Medicines Act

An Auckland widow who spoke out about New Zealand's drug wastage after her husband's death will face prosecution - or even jail - if she gives his leftover cancer medication to another family in need.

Terminally-ill Waikanae father Andrew Hercus is taking the $10,000-a-month cancer drug, Zelboraf. He came forward after seeing widow Deb McCullough on Newshub.

McCullough's husband Steve died in June, just four months after being diagnosed with metastatic melanoma.

Steve had taken just one pill out of an entire month's supply of Zelboraf, leaving boxes of sealed, unused medication.

The drug's manufacturer, Roche, says unused medicine should be returned to the pharmacy for disposal.

However, McCullough would like to gift her husband's leftover medication to Hercus, who has been on Zelboraf for four months.

Hercus' family is constantly fundraising with movie nights and dinners to afford the monthly $10,000 expense.

"It's such a perfect match - same dose, same medication. It would be very, very easy to just pass it on to him, but we can't," says McCullough.

Andrew's wife, Kiri Hercus, is equally frustrated.

"It's heartbreaking, it's ridiculous. What happened to Kiwis helping Kiwis - we're here," she told Newshub.

The Ministry of Health says the Medicines Act clearly stipulates that gifting prescription medicines is just as illegal as selling them when you're not a licensed pharmacy or distributor.

That means McCullough is liable for a maximum $40,000 fine or a maximum of six months behind bars if she's caught giving away Steve's medication.

"To find a family that could actually benefit from it and have my hands tied is just staggering. But I'm not going to put myself at risk - I have two children to look after," she says.

"This other family cannot put themselves at risk either. So [our] hands are tied."

Cancer Society medical director Chris Jackson says informal networks "like the Dallas Buyers Club" have sprung up nationwide, where families are gifting expensive, leftover medication illegally.

Kiri agrees with McCullough that it's risky. She wants the Government to rethink the regulations.

"What am I supposed to do... take them off her, give him time - but I could go to jail, I could be fined?" she says.

Newshub has been contacted by Medical Aid Abroad offering to send Steve's medication offshore to others in need.

The Ministry of Health admits that is legal, as long as "they comply with the recipient country's regulations".

"Why can't we help someone here in NZ who's struggling?" McCullough asks.

Some pharmacists, like Puneet Saini in Christchurch, are backing the two families and their calls for change.

If drugs are brought back to Saini following someone's death, the Medicines Regulations Act stipulates the medication should be disposed of in case they've been "exposed to… tampering or contamination".

"Even a couple of months ago, [if] someone returned $16,000 worth of medicines back to us and that just went into the bin... it's unreal, it's just crazy," says Saini.

He believes up to $40 million of safe, sealed medication is being disposed of annually after people die, meaning terminally-ill Kiwis who can't afford it, miss out.

"Even if you retest the drug you'll find it's perfectly fine as well... it's just the regulations don't allow for it."

The Hercus family has spent $40,000 on Zelboraf to keep Andrew alive these past four months. They live and breathe fundraising.

"It's not easy at all. It's not easy constantly asking my own community to help me," Kiri says.

Steve's leftover medication would have offered the Hercus family a breather from that pressure for a month - but to them, that would have been a lifeline in itself.

If only the law would allow it.